Re: [OPE] epistemological and scientific questions

From: Howard Engelskirchen <>
Date: Sat Dec 13 2008 - 09:11:06 EST

I suspect neither of the formulations here, or in the post of dogan's
referred to, fully achieve what we're after.

First, the idea of science as a mirror of reality recalls positivist
approaches of the early part of the last century and ignores
important advance provoked by Kuhn and aspects of the hermeneutic
tradition. This is expressed by the proposition that all observation
is theory laden -- not theory determined, but theory laden. It's
enough to say that our ideas correspond to reality because the theory
we bring to practice does a better and better job of getting it right
about the way the world is. We don't need to suppose, implausibly,
that we get a mirror reflection either by means of a theory that is
flawlessly transparent or instead without any mediation by theory at all.

But I agree the idea of 'models' is tricky. We can think of the
double helix as providing a model for our understanding of dna, and
there is nothing wrong with that, but too easily, and especially in
political economy, models get expressed, as here, not as
corresponding to the way the world is, but as heuristic instruments
that guide prediction. On this approach, the model may be coherent,
but it isn't true, and we can leave out or introduce features
according to model driven (conceptual) imperatives. Better to anchor
method in the world, natural or social, that we're trying to
understand. What we're looking for are the causal structures of
nature or social life that explain phenomena. We use language or
other systems of representation to refer. So the task of reference
is to pick out those structures and the task of explanation is to
offer an understanding of how these generate the phenomena to be
explained. We go from 'population' to the simplest determinations we
can find and back to population again.


At 05:22 AM 12/13/2008, you wrote:
>on 2008-12-11 18:48 wrote:
>>To put it into a question whom do you rely on in your theory of
>>scince I have still to clarify many questions in detail concerning
>>the theory of models. But I am not very fond of models. I prefer
>>rather to use the concept of mirror. Mirror theory reflects social
>>structures,relations and their tendencies by generalising and
>>putting them into categories.
>Other than being a 'realist', I can't really say that I rely on a
>particular theory of science. My views are mainly derived from a
>general interest in the evolution of science and of physics in
>particular. However, I suppose they are close to those of Lakatos and Bhaskar.
>I am not suggesting a "theory of models", rather I'm using the word
>'model' (as in a toy-model) as an analogy for what a scientific
>theory is. Models are never 'true' or 'false' but 'more' or 'less
>accurate'; they can improve and we can rank some models as better
>than others according to some criteria. (A very good summary by
>Jennings, who is a physicist I believe, is attached.) The analogy of
>a 'mirror' is very misleading, especially if one considers the
>evolution of science.
>>I would be interested in what you say: "historical materialism
>>provides a general framework for developing such models". Can you
>>say a bit more on this?
>I was being quite simple really: historical materialism can be
>thought of as a framework (or at its finest moments, a 'research
>program' in the style of Lakatos) to generate testable theories,
>i.e. models that predict observations. E.g. in the context of the
>previous post; theories about the evolution of the working-class
>under deindustrialisation; capital investment under stagnant
>profits; conditions for structural crises and the likelihood of
>their outcomes etc. As time progresses there is a growing historical
>record on which these theories can be tested.
>//Dave Z
>ope mailing list

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